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Need To Seed: Why NFL Playoff Format Must Change

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KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 27: Outside linebacker Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs attempts to pumps up the crowd on fourth down during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium on October 27, 2013 in Kansas City, Missouri
KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 27: Outside linebacker Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs attempts to pumps up the crowd on fourth down during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium on October 27, 2013 in Kansas City, Missouri

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced, during the offseason the NFL will explore expanding its playoff format from 12 teams to 14. If the NFL owners decide to make that big change and potentially dilute their product, like the NBA did back in the 1990s with its 16-team playoff system, then they might as well discuss something that will remake the NFL playoffs to become far more intriguing: Seed the top 14 teams by record.

Sounds crazy?

Well, this season offers the real possibility of two groups of teams from the same division to have the top four regular season winning records in the league. That would be the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos (combined 16-1) and the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers (combined 14-3) through Week 9. There is a real chance that the four teams could have 13 or more victories each. That would be an NFL first.

And the shame of that would boil down to this: Two of those franchises would be on the road in the first week as wild card teams.

Whether that scenario happens this season isn’t the point. The fact that it could needs to be addressed. If the NFL goes to a 14-team playoff format next year, then a change to seeding the playoffs will be needed. Here’s why.

One of the reasons why the NFL is the preeminent sports league in North America and world is because of its modern day evolution. That included merging with the upstart, throw-first AFL league back in the 1960 and putting great entertainment on TV.

From the Super Ball to the Super Bowl, so coined by the late Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the season ending climax, the big showdown has become as much of an American institution and family-friends get together as any holiday or sporting event.

In 1970, the two leagues merged during what was by then the fifth Super Bowl, the game won by the Baltimore Colts over the Dallas Cowboys on a last-second field goal. But it was the 1972 season, the year the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to the playoffs for the first time in four decades, when Franco Harris caught the “Immaculate Reception” on fourth-and-22 to beat the Oakland Raiders; the Miami Dolphins’ ran the table with a perfect 17-0 reason; and the great rivalry of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins came into the limelight that would thrill fans for the rest of the decade, in what I consider the Golden Age of the NFL.

Speaking of rivalries, it would have been amazing to see the Steelers and Raiders or the Cowboys and Redskins of that era go at each other’s throats in the Super Bowl. Or how about the matchup made in heaven of the 1990s, the Steve Young 49ers versus the Troy Aikman Cowboys? Or in the last decade, pitting Tom Brady’s New England Patriots versus Peyton Manning’s Colts. That would have been manna from football heaven, as they would have probably faced off twice on a neutral field.

Why not have the two best coaches, two best quarterbacks, or the two best teams play one another, season in, season out in the big game? Brady versus Manning would have been both magical and memorable to see that matchup.

Sure, the last half-dozen Super Bowls have been great, highly competitive games. But for those who don’t remember, most of the Super Bowls have been blowouts going back to Super Bowl I. One reason for that, which has been misunderstood by the media and with the fans is the big game always displays the best or hottest team of a given year, but not always the two best teams, which is what the NFL needs to change if it wants to avoid diluting its own product.

Wouldn’t the great rivalries of the Packers-Bears, Patriots-Jets, Falcons-Saints, and Ravens-Steelers in the future be wonderful to showcase on the big stage? Or what about the top four teams this year squaring off with their division for the Lombardi Trophy? It’s time for the NFL to think long and serious about seeding the teams from 1 to 14, if they do in fact vote to expand the playoff format.

The NFL Adjusts its Model for a New Era

Give kudos to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league for attempting to reinvent and reinvigorate the moribund NFL Pro Bowl Game in 2014 by making it “unconferenced,” driven by the social media with fans voting online.

From the NFL announcement: “It's time to vote for the best players, regardless of conference. The NFL's top two vote-getters on offense and defense become team captains for Deion Sanders' team and Jerry Rice's team. In a fantasy draft style setting, the captains pick from the voted all-stars to form the teams. And when the stars are realigned, it's teammate versus teammate in the new Pro Bowl: Unconferenced.”

I agree with this change and look forward to watching the Pro-Bowl game next year.

But on the possible expansion of the playoffs and the Super Bowl the following season, the NFL should take the vision or reinventing the Pro-Bowl game to the playoffs. That change would likely make the next 50 Super Bowls more competitive and special. But the league would need to do it by seeding purely on the teams’ best records, regardless of division finish, with division winners winning tie breakers and so on.

This new format would be breathe new life into the sport and make the NFL greater than it already is today—something to consider this offseason, a change that could draw ever more fans and viewers, and interest in the sport of American football.

[Disclosure: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and I went to high school together back in the 1970s.]